By Bob “The Record Guy” Paxon
In 1957 an event happened which caused great changes in the United States. It ushered in a new emphasis on technology leading to many of the technological gadgets we use on a daily basis. It caused the advent of the Space Race and a further chill in the Cold War. It boosted the esteem of the USSR immeasurably.
“Oh we’re gonna get our kicks, on a little ole thing called-a, a Spootnik..”
The Soviet Union had just launched the first Sputnik into orbit.
This caused paranoia, awe and a wave of near-hysteria in the American public. And for Irondequoit’s Jerry Englerth, it seemed like a great idea for a song!
Jerry was born in Rochester but moved out West to Arizona when he was 10 and spent four years there, learning about country music (and probably absorbing that Southwest vibe). He returned to Rochester and bought himself a Martin D-28 guitar and began playing talent shows.
Reading about the launch of Sputnik, he wrote some nonsensical lyrics while on a lunch break from his Eastman-Kodak job. He recruited The Four Ekkos as backup and cut “Sputnik” at Fine Recording Studio in 1957. For once, Fine produced a great sounding record (this wasn’t always the case!).
The Four Ekkos also recorded a 45 for Rochester’s RIP Records and had a minor hit in 1959 with “Hand In Hand” on Buffalo’s Label Records (what a confusing name for a record label!).
His manager was Nick Nickson, a DJ at Rochester’s WBBF, who was able to get a deal with Brunswick records after playing the demo over the phone. Brunswick rush-released it to capitalize on the Sputnik publicity, promoting the record as “out of this world.” Englerth became Engler in the process.
Jerry took a leave of absence from Kodak and started promoting the record in bigger venues. He appeared at the infamous Rochester War Memorial show with Buddy Holly & The Crickets, the Everly Brothers, Fats Domino and others – the same show where a young Ersel Hickey would talk to the Everlys and get the excellent advice to write a song as the ticket to R&R success.
Engler built a friendship with the Texan Holly – maybe due to his years in the Southwest and shared love of Marty Robbins and Hank Williams – and was invited to travel to Clovis, N.M., for a session at Norman Petty’s studio, where Holly recorded. And on Buddy Holly’s 22nd birthday (Sept. 7, 1958) Buddy played guitar and produced on some tracks Jerry laid down. These were almost the last recordings Buddy ever did, but they weren’t issued until they were included on the 2005 CD compilation “A Whole Lotta Years, A Whole Lotta Music.” This also includes a re-recorded version of Sputnik and more recent recordings in both Rockabilly and Country styles recorded at Jerry’s Irondequoit home-studio. It is available at Amazon and CDBaby.
Five months later, Buddy died in a plane crash at the age of 22. Only 22 himself, Jerry backed off from the music business and returned to Kodak and later worked at Xerox. He didn’t release a record again until 1988’s “Win Some-Lose Some,” a strict country effort.
“Sputnik” has retained its fame among Rockabilly collectors and people who look for novelties from the Atomic Age/ Space Age/ Cold War. It’s been “comped” multiples times, most notably by Germany’s Bear Family.
While it made a moderate splash in the USA in its time, it also was issued overseas and became a minor hit in Australia and was covered in Mexico in 1960 by The Loud Jets – in Spanish!
“My baby and me, and that spoot-a-nik makes three, flyin’ all around the world, with that crazy satellite girl.”